Monday, January 23, 2017

Catching up with the past

In addition to Westworld (which, yes, I will get back to at some point. I've watched the third episode, but Tricia and I have been watching most series together and we've been kind of distracted by house things and it's a measure of interest generated by any particular show as to how quickly she falls asleep while trying to watch it. Orange is the New Black? No problem sitting through three or four episodes. Westworld... eh.), I recently started watching Vikings, which has been heralded by the history geeks on the board for years now. I was hesitant to get into it for a couple reasons. First off, my tolerance for dramatized history is fairly low. Being a nerd, I know the reality of a lot of what I'm watching and, thus, don't often have the fascination with it like I would for a new story. I've kinda seen it before, so when deviations are added for the sake of story, it's a little jarring and then I start poking holes in things and it just gets muddled. A lot of people I know rave about HBO's Rome as one of the best things ever. I did enjoy it, but I also thought it was adding a lot of soap opera drama for a story that was already pretty exciting (see: William Shakespeare, if not The Gallic Wars.) In terms of historical dramas, I thought Deadwood was vastly superior and I enjoy Roman history much more than the American West.

Secondly: History Channel. I get that they have to produce what sells and that their audience is probably largely made up of nominal Trump voters who enjoy endless retakes on Vietnam and other manifestations of the Cold War, but they've already created an American Heroes channel. Isn't that enough? Every depiction of history is going to have an implicit agenda, but I stopped watching the History channel years ago because I really tired of the often-ridiculously Americanized aspect to it. Howevah, I had a day off and finally started watching some Vikings.

That phrase has some odd implications. It's like being a 9th-century monk in some monastery on the coast of the North Sea whose previous goal in life was observing the habits of Northern Lapwings. "The Bloodythroated Savages began their migration today. The local field was quite literally aflame with their presence." And, of course, the opening scene to the first episode is exactly that, showing Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), slaughtering the natives somewhere in what is presumably a narrowly-successful raid, since they seem to be the only survivors. Can two people guide a longboat back across the sea? Guess we'll find out. It's a bit too early in the timeline for them to be the Danish invaders/settlers on the British east coast.

But then we drop right back into wherever Ragnar and Co. are originating from ("Scandinavia") and get a good dose of the culture surrounding them. I thought that was a great way to start, especially since they spent a fair amount of time on the Thing, the tribal council that somewhat influences Earl Haraldson's (Gabriel Byrne) thinking. It's about as effective in that respect as our own modern Congress will be in the next four years, but it at least conveys some of the differences in Viking thought from, say, Western European serfdom. Speaking of Byrne, I was at first excited to see that he was present, since I'm a fan of a lot of his work, and the presentation of some past tragedy involving his sons was at least the foundation of a motivation that gives him more depth than the usual Sauron-style bad guy ("I am mean and angry... because I am mean and angry! Arrrrrrr!") However, fairly soon, it felt to me like Byrne was kind of slumming it for a paycheck in that there was nothing particularly compelling about his character. It was a nice Denethor moment (speaking of Sauron; the LotR references will be plentiful here, given the foundation for much of Tolkien's work) when he was warning Ragnar to keep his wild ideas to himself, though.

Most of the other actors do well enough in their parts. Some of them shaded a bit toward the trite side; Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) having to flex her shieldmaiden muscle and Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) being the prototypical "mad scientist" shipbuilder who will enable Ragnar to follow his dream like his namesake of legend (and possibly history.) But you can forgive some of that for the level of production involved and the writers trying to clue people in to both the history and the drama, simultaneously, because they know there are nerds out there like me who will be spot-checking.

So, altogether, pretty worthwhile. I'm mildly fascinated by that period of history (as with so many others) mostly because of the aforementioned migratory patterns of the tribes and civilizations of that era and the impact that they had. I don't know that I'll be checking back in regularly on it in this space, since I'm not sure what kind of progress I'll make. New seasons of regular stuff like House of Cards and GoT aren't that far off. And, yes, I'm trying to finish Westworld. But I thought it was worth a mention and perhaps I'll see if I can get on board with all the other sunstone compass followers.